The Hub Reflecting on Charles Darwin’s lasting impact

Reflecting on Charles Darwin’s lasting impact

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It has been 161 years since Charles Darwin published what is undoubtedly one of the most important scientific works of all time, On the Origin of Species, on Nov. 24, 1859.

We asked Dr. Roland Treu, a biology professor in the Athabasca University (AU) Faculty of Science and Technology, to share his thoughts on the lasting impact this work has had on in the sciences and in society at large—both when it was first published and also in today’s context.

If you’re interested in learning more about this topic, basic evolution and biodiversity are covered in AU’s introductory Principles of Biology courses: Biology 205 and Biology 207.

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What was the general understanding of the origin of life prior to the publication of On the Origin of Species?

Life and all organisms were thought to have originated simultaneously from a special act of creation and the resulting species would be perfect and unchangeable. These beliefs coexisted with the idea of “spontaneous generation,” according to which some forms of life would continuously arise from dead matter.

Dr. Roland Treu

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In broad, general terms, what is the thrust of the theory Darwin put forward?

Darwin realized that organisms (species) are constantly changing (evolving) through time. This idea of evolution in fact originates from Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, almost 50 years before Darwin—this is widely discussed in the French scholarly literature, not so much in the English-speaking world.

What made Darwin’s ideas so outstanding is the fact that he came up with a compelling explanation of the main mechanism of evolution, in the form of natural selection. Natural selection means that well-adapted organisms are favoured in a particular environment over less-well-adapted ones. Species, or more exactly, populations, change accordingly, because the better-adapted ones reproduce more. All these modifications are driven by an ever-changing environment. If for example the climate gets colder, animal species with more fur are better adapted than others with less fur.

Dr. Roland Treu

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How was this work received when it was published?

The Church hierarchy, and by implication other parts of society, were not amused. Fortunately for Darwin, he lived in a time when the Inquisition no longer played a role. The main objections to Darwin’s ideas were based on perceived contradictions to religious texts. In contrast, many parts of the scientific community had immediately accepted and embraced Darwin’s ideas. In this context, it is worth mentioning that Russel Wallace had produced a manuscript at the same time as Darwin’s book On the Origin of Species, with almost identical ideas about evolution and natural selection. It shows that the scientific community at that time was ready for these new ideas.

Dr. Roland Treu

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How long did it take for the theory of natural selection to become the dominant accepted theory in the scientific community?

By the beginning of the 20th Century, Darwin’s ideas had become mainstream in most of the biological scholarly community.

Dr. Roland Treu

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Has the scientific understanding of this process of natural selection changed since its publication?

Yes, in many respects. Darwin still struggled with an explanation of how his postulated changes to organisms were inherited from generation to generation. When Gregor Mendel’s work was later rediscovered and classical genetics became an important biological science, a crucial gap in our understanding had been filled and Darwin’s ideas received a major boost.

Today evolutionary biology is a thriving science and we have learned so much more since Darwin. Natural selection is still considered the major driving force of evolution, but we know now that it is not the only one. Studying evolution in more depth is highly rewarding on an intellectual level, but it frequently confirms and deepens aspects of Darwin’s original thoughts.

Also, Darwin’s works are often cited in the context of “struggle for existence”, as highly competitive actions of one species against another one, but modern evolutionary biology has shown that cooperation among different life forms was indeed more than crucial for evolutionary progress. For example, the trees in a forest are connected through common fungal mycelia and plants could conquer the land about 440 million years ago only with the help of fungi. Our own cells harbour organelles that were once free-living bacteria but have now become incorporated and serve important functions for energy storage.

Dr. Roland Treu

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Do you have any comment to offer on the creationism vs. evolution debate that, rightly or wrongly, often rests on criticism or acceptance of Darwin’s work?

This is not a debate at all within the scientific and biological community, where evolution is an accepted fact. The controversy of course does occur within society outside the scientific realm.

It is a flawed debate because of a misunderstanding of the scientific process, the nature of science, and how this open-ended process of scientific inquiry tries to understand the world through evidence. Science is not a belief system that is based on a dogma. The strength of the scientific way of knowing is its openness to change when new evidence arises. Science textbooks will always be rewritten as long as we practise science as a species.

Therefore, trying to criticize a monumental work like the On the Origin of Species because of perceived contradictions to a religious text is not only intellectually shallow, but completely misses the point of both science and religion.

At the same time, I would argue that the scientific community has to do a much better job of explaining to society at large first of all how science works and only then how evolution works. However, as a scientific community we must also show respect to religious beliefs which are a different way of knowing that likewise took a few centuries to evolve within human cultural belief systems.

Dr. Roland Treu

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What are the implications of Darwin’s work for our species and our planet?

Humans have created remarkable systems of civilization that do not follow biological laws. However, we cannot erase the history of our species that is rooted in the animal kingdom. Understanding where we come from may help us to explain and hopefully correct—or at least to channel—some of our less-desirable behaviour patterns.

The most fascinating aspect to derive from Darwin’s book is the fact that all life on planet earth is interrelated, and if you go back far enough in earth’s history, about three or four billion years, we share common ancestors with every other tree, animal, and mushroom species. Yes, even with bacteria. Hopefully we can treat the planet and the environment of which we are a part more gently if we become aware of our common ancestry.

Dr. Roland Treu

Published:
  • November 23, 2020